Pleasure and Duty in the Brave New World We Live In
“Nietzsche merely says: ‘No shepherd and one herd, everyone will the same, everyone is the same, everyone is equal.  He who feels differently goes voluntarily to the lunatic asylum’” – Leo Strauss “Your first job is to be happy!”—is the advice we should not be surprised to hear from today’s mental health professionals.  Yet few,… The post Pleasure and Duty in the Brave New World We Live In appeared first on VoegelinView.




“Nietzsche merely says: ‘No shepherd and one herd, everyone will the same, everyone is the same, everyone is equal.  He who feels differently goes voluntarily to the lunatic asylum’” – Leo Strauss
“Your first job is to be happy!”—is the advice we should not be surprised to hear from today’s mental health professionals.  Yet few, if any, of our specialists will volunteer explaining to you—or your child—what precisely they mean by happiness.
Scratching beneath the first-glance surface of words, we see that in contemporary parlance “job” stands for duty as “happiness” stands for pleasure, opening Troy’s doors to institutionalized hedonism.  Happiness (to speak prudishly) is our duty; indeed, happiness is, to echo a staple of Kantian discourse, our “moral imperative.”  Yet, for Kant happiness is second to duty: happiness is to be understood in the “greater context” of duty.  Yet, our mental health specialists do not disagree.  After all, they are the first to call us to happiness as duty.  Reading the fine print: the implication, the “Gray” in Wilde’s Dorian’s closet, is not that duty is to serve happiness, but that duty itself is happiness, or that happiness is merely a name (a nominal mask) for the essence of duty: we really ought to be happy in the respect that happiness serves duty as ultimate moral imperative.  Now, if this reminds us of an old Christian commandment to love, that is primarily because Kant’s scientific morality is the step-child of a biblical morality that stands or falls on trust in a divine legislator.
Of course, modern secular morality does not presuppose any ultimate legislator, but a sub-human horizon of mechanical reactions that our “hard scientists” call “nature”.  The mechanical (endocrinal, neural, bio-chemical, etc.) reactions, rather than any divine mind, tell us to be happy.  They “order” us, not consciously, but unconsciously or mechanically; not through natural desire, to speak with Aristotle, but through outright compulsion.  Yet, we must learn to be happy.  Unconscious forces alone do not suffice.  It is only in responding to mechanically-produced compulsions (not to any biblical God, to be sure) that we can be happy.
Since our science tells us all we know or are supposed to know about our “mechanisms,” it is to our science that we turn for technical advice to help us be happy, advice that includes psychologists’ motivational “steps” to feel happy, or even to believe that we can possibly be happy; under the assumption that we should, insofar as we are programmed or “hard wired” to be happy, where happiness is our mechanical duty, the “last name” for what the hedonist/materialist regards as the truth about all duty: the blind necessity to which we return inexorably as we respond to it mechanically (formally, “beyond good and evil”).[1]
What our scientific mental health specialists speak of as happiness is nothing to be sought theoretically, but something to be worked on here and now as a Kantian duty.  What sort of duty?  In what context?  What tells us so?  Questions unasked where we (are expected to) take for granted answers we have learned more or less by social osmosis in the course of our all-too-modern upbringing.
In our anti-metaphysical world, Pablo Picasso takes pride in his finding truth, rather than seeking it; Napoleon does not wait for any Pope to crown him; Freud’s last hero, as an inverted-Saturn of sorts, overcomes his father.  Impatience is what all three—the painter, the king and the “scientist”—hold in common; so it should come to no surprise that we ourselves are taught to mistrust any classical investigation into the foundations of our freedom.  Where the “act of freedom” is primordial—“in the beginning was the Deed” (Im Anfang war die Tat), cries Goethe’s Faust—asking about its presuppositions is pointless, even wrong, if not outright evil.  Our “job” would then be to carry out the work of freedom as original duty; and to see in that duty our true happiness.
Approached from a slightly different angle, the problem at hand may be introduced thus: freedom begins where mechanical necessity ends.[2]  We begin being free when we satisfy our natural compulsions.  But how can we satisfy our sub-human, bio-chemical compulsions?  We would need to transport our compulsions, the forces underlying our ordinary life experience, into ideals, dreams and expectations in which our compulsions may rest.  We are thus compelled to produce, even “construct” forms, even entire worlds in which our compulsions are gathered as fears are in a realm of absolute security.  Imagining paradise, or “re-enchanting” our Godless world, becomes no less important to us than listening to “natural scientists”.  These can hand us our “tools,” but not our “ends”; or so it would seem, as long as we do not notice that the means—data including raw “information”—are not simply discovered “in nature,” but construed in function of dream-making (as micro-dreams harvested in laboratory test-tubes) and ultimately of the final dream, namely the society that has eliminated all pain by having enforced absolutely the duty of pleasure, or absolute duty as highest pleasure.  In short, our scientists abstract their “facts” from nature-proper, as material compatible with the project of establishing a world cut off from “old nature”—a world of data in which everyone is equally right and equally wrong; in which no one judges anyone else; in which there is no morally better or morally worse, because everyone lives for a universal moral imperative in which the subhuman finds its rest hic et nunc without having to wait upon any otherworldly heaven.  Thus, far from being opposed to the onslaught of materialism, the neo-Romantic project of re-enchanting our world merely confirms its official nemesis by drawing us into an oasis of “appearances and feelings” serving as consolation prize for our loss (formerly, an abandonment) of being itself.
In our “new world,” we solve problems so that we need no longer wrestle with them logically, or rationally.  Problems that we cannot solve here and now are not problems, but ephemeral “glitches,” mistakes to cancel, illusions to neutralize in the name of progress—spiritual progress, to be sure, as we move into the Society of Solutions.  In this society we mustbe happy,” where the given “be” is indistinguishable from a cocktail of mechanically produced “appearances and feelings”—the new surfaces and the new depths.  To wit: if in the new Godless society I both look like (which is to say, I am seen as) Napoleon and feel like him, then eo ipso, as if by magic, I am and indeed must dutifully be him—and happily so.
Our new society is dominated by the ultimate duty, a moral imperative established as the very essence of happiness.  In this supreme principle of social cohesiveness, happiness is the pleasure coinciding with the triumph of universal duty, a duty incarnating a will common to us as a species (J.-J. Rousseau’s volonté générale).  Duty can finally coincide with freedom itself, freedom that finds its sovereign determination as Will; even as a disenchanted Luddite is likely to question the new freedom as the eminently marketable façade of a mechanical necessity formerly known as slavery.
The foregoing ruminations have hinted at the hedonism underscoring the rise of the modern moral imperative as solution to old metaphysical problems, problems that had been thitherto held as insoluble, given their permanence.  Being permanent, problems would be constant and thus, too, properly intelligible.  The modern “solutions” that replace old problems are far from being intelligible.  The fundamental or mysterious intelligibility revered by old, even ancestral society is now replaced by a system of “clear and distinct” historically-contingent solutions, in which the principle of pleasure finds its supreme vindication.  What vindicates pleasure is a new “universal” justice, or justice as new universal, a form of consciousness in which all particular life-forms are to be redeemed in the respect that they are saved from death, saved from exposure to “death as permanent problem”.  The new justice, or the new universal that equalizes all moral differences, abolishes death or every painful reminder of death.  Even death—albeit as a new death for our new world—must be pleasant; in death itself we must be happy.  Why, the supreme happiness consisting of the fateful Triumph of our “general Will” comes to coincide with death itself, not as problem, but as principle of affirmation (as per Hegel)—a principle that Pieter Bruegel depicted with prophetic insight in his “Triumph of Death.”


[1] On the Nietzschean roots of modern psychology/psychoanalysis, see “Session 8” of Leo Strauss’s “On Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra” (course offered in the Department of Political Science, the University of Chicago, Spring Quarter 1959. Edited and with an Introduction by Richard Velkley, at <>: “Nietzsche’s chief work according to his own deliberation is Thus Spoke Zarathustra.  The starting point, as you remember, is ‘God is dead’.  This is the greatest event in the life of man, his supreme crisis.  The primary consequence of this event is the prospect of the last man: the man who has ceased to aspire, who knows no longer any heroism, any dedication, any reverence.  Needless to say, Nietzsche does not speak of psychoanalysis, because psychoanalysis emerged out of Nietzsche.  Nietzsche merely says: ‘No shepherd and one herd, everyone will the same, everyone is the same, everyone is equal.  He who feels differently goes voluntarily to the lunatic asylum.’ But this formulation [by] Nietzsche presupposes of course there is no cure for feeling differently, whereas psychoanalysis is such a cure.  In other words, psychoanalysis really completes Nietzsche’s vision of the last man: perfect conformity” (113).  Strauss goes on stressing Nietzsche’s “anti-communist” call to respond mechanically to mechanical necessity, or to convert blind or unconscious necessity into a conscious act.  Nietzsche’s last or new man is a machine conscious of its being a machine; a machine in which mind or thought is reduced to aesthetic appreciation of blind necessity as outright fate: amor fati.
[2] When Locke announces that my freedom ends where yours begins, is he not implying that the two are separated by a hiatus characterized by mechanical necessity?  Why else does (not merely “should”) my own freedom end where yours begins?  What, if not a “wall of necessity” impervious to freedom, prevents my freedom and your freedom from being one?  Yet, that “wall” (represented by modern “scientific” discourse, including Locke’s own) makes modern freedom possible, in the first place.

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